Why Network Design Matters

Successful networks are self-regulating and sustainable, like the water cycle. Image License Creative Commons: AIRS, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder,

Water Cycle, Image License Creative Commons: AIRS, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder,

This is part of an occasional series on network design

Successful networks grow into a (nearly) self-sustaining cycle. That’s what gives them the staying power and benefits that emerge out of networks. A self-sustaining cycle like the water cycle.

Networks work best when they foster a cycle of member generosity, reciprocity, mutual benefits, and natural alliances, all emerging out of and reinforcing personal relationships. That’s like the cycle of precipitation, runoff, plant uptake and transpiration, and other water flows in the water cycle. In this comparison, members are water molecules, moving independently through the cycle as energy and occasion warrants, interacting with other water molecules as well as the outside world (soil, plants, fish).

Networks will always take energy inputs to keep the system moving. The sun and gravity put energy into the water cycle, enabling evaporation, transpiration, wind, streams, and lakes. In a network context, network leaders or support staff are the sun and gravity putting energy into the network-system to keep things going.

So What?

Network design is critical to a network’s success. A network leader challenge is remembering the network isn’t most people’s first priority, and it shouldn’t be. I use these two principles to help me remember, members’ needs come first. That said, the network’s need are important, too, and both need to be built into the puzzle-pieces of network activities.

As a network leader, I have to understand how the network system fits together. I know we want to build a shared vision, that we need to develop a redundant set of relationships within the network, that integrating no-thinking systems to share information is critical. If we do that, we will achieve more than any of us could achieve alone.

While it’s great if they do, network members shouldn’t have to understand the theory behind that to participate in and get value from a network. Thoughtful network design allows me (as a network leader) to achieve the abstract network-building goals while also keeping members’ needs first. If a network is designed to be useful and easy to engage in for members, it creates a system that is self-regulating and self-reinforcing, one that is almost self-sustaining once in motion.

Introducing this Network Design Series

In each post in this series, I plan to include a short introduction and two main sections:

  1. Principles: I’ll share one or two principles I use when designing a network or a network activity. Here are the posts already published:
  2. Examples: I also hope to offer concrete examples from my own experience.

What principles of network design do you follow?